The legal Bill

A policeman’s lot may not be a happy one, but the Met’s in-house team has a ball. David Hamilton presides over his ‘manor’ in South West London, just around the corner from Scotland Yard. It is a common misconception, but neither building is actually a functioning police station, so you are unlikely to bump into any criminals. And a good job too, as they are both situated close to Buckingham Palace.

The directorate of legal services comprises 40 qualified lawyers and a host of additional case workers and support staff. It takes up three floors of the building in Buckingham Gate, while the other floors provide a home for various serious crime units. All suspect packages are opened in their building, but fortunately Hamilton and his team have hardy dispositions.

Hamilton has worked for the Met for 22 years and in that time he has seen the in-house team shrink and grow again. Back in 1980, the legal division handled all prosecutions. The bulk of this work was hived off when the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was formed in 1986. He joined a team of more than 260 people, which then dwindled to 44 post-CPS. The team has expanded again and now comprises a total of 100 legal and non-legal staff.

When Hamilton originally joined, moving down from a post in West Cumbria where he had a mixed prosecution and defence practice, he thought: “I’ll go after this job because it will give me a salary while I look for a job in private practice.” Either Hamilton is singularly slow or fussy about seeking new employment, or he found what he was looking for at the Met.

The legal team at the Met concentrates on the civil aspects of the police force’s operational matters. The overall team is split into three groups, each with its own head, three team leaders below them and a further three or four lawyers under them. More than half of the in-house team’s time is spent on managing civil claims against the force, with employment and tribunal work taking up around 20 per cent of its workload. It may be a terrible cliché, but in reality, no two days are the same – at least not for Hamilton.

Support staff may not benefit from as much variety, but the lawyers handle anything from employment tribunals through firearms licensing to public inquiries. Wrongful arrest, prosecuting errant officers, death in custody or providing advice on the public order aspects of the May Day protests or the Notting Hill Carnival could land on any lawyer’s desk.

At the time of writing, Hamilton’s in-tray includes work related to the drowning of two children in the swimming pool at a police training centre in Hendon. He is also waiting for the judgment in an action of wrongful arrest brought by Mohammed Al Fayed against the Met. And last, but not least, there are files relating to a couple of high-profile employment tribunals. It is hardly your average day at the office.

Hamilton takes a more hands-on role when cases are of a particularly sensitive nature. “I still know my way around police conduct and discipline regulations because those issues cross my path quite a bit,” he says. In addition to his day-to-day legal and management responsibilities, Hamilton advises a national network of counter-terrorism specialists. He has just returned from China, where he has been putting together an agreement with Chinese customs and law enforcement departments to enhance cooperation during investigations.

The team operates a duty solicitor scheme for out-of-hours or telephone enquiries. This scheme receives calls on some 3,000 different topics each year. Hamilton received a call at home on the day former Chilean leader General Pinochet was arrested in the UK.

He says of his department: “It’s probably no different, in principle, from a unit of this size in the private sector. People have to understand the work, understand the highways and byways to what are often quite arcane areas of law.”

It might not differ much in terms of how it is run, but the political impact is much more prominent. While it could be argued that in-house counsel at any company in a contentious industry could make similar claims over the political pressure brought to bear on their role, few companies or public bodies receive as much scrutiny as a police force, particularly that of the capital city.

“We definitely feel the ‘capital city effect’,” Hamilton admits. “There’s wide interest in what goes on here from the public, the press, the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Mayor and the Home Secretary.” This is hardly surprising considering the matters dealt with by the Met’s legal team. Inquiries into the death of Victoria Climbie, Stephen Lawrence and the saga of Sergeant Gurpal Virdi, who was wrongly accused of sending racist hate mail to colleagues, all passed through the in-house team.

Hamilton observes: “What’s biting the Met will come via us.” He makes one statement to every lawyer joining his team: “I can only make you one promise: you won’t get bored by the work.”

He adds: “Unlike the general arrangements where most in-house teams may put out the big stuff and keep the routine work, we’re the other way round.” Overflow work is sliced from the lower end of the complexity spectrum and sent out to a number of panel firms. That this is an overflow mechanism is made clear in the division of Hamilton’s budget, with just £1.3m allocated to cover the fees of external firms. Of his total legal spend of £7.4m, £4.2m is needed to run the legal department and a further £1.9m is set aside for barristers.

The Met has just concluded a panel review, although ‘panel’ may be a slightly grand title. As of the beginning of September, two national firms – Berrymans Lace Mawer and Weightmans Vizards – will take care of the overflow cases and accident claims work coming from other departments. They replace Bircham Dyson Bell, Kennedys and Ponsford & Devenish Tivendale & Munday.

“One of the reasons for the change was because we wanted providers that could cover the whole range of work, including public liability and employment, as necessary,” Hamilton explains. “In terms of best value, we were looking for the right combination of quality and service.” It is fortunate that Weightmans completed its move to London in time to pitch. Hamilton adds: “It was important to have a London presence. Our home courts are the central London county courts.”

Hamilton is also on the lookout for new recruits. It would be disingenuous to say that in-house lawyers at the Met can expect a particularly large pay packet. But the work definitely has an impact that extends far beyond the office walls. Hamilton says he has no desire to return to private practice.

“I like the variety and I like the people, both my department and our clients,” he concludes. “The Met in its manifest forms is very dynamic. The police attitude is ‘can do’, which makes life both very interesting and very challenging.”
David Hamilton
Head of legal
Metropolitan Police

Statistics
Organisation Metropolitan Police
Sector Law enforcement
Employees 26,500 officers and 10,000 civilian staff
Annual legal spend £7,4m (including running costs and outside counsel)
Legal capability 40 qualified lawyers and 60 case workers and support staff
Head of legal David Hamilton
Reporting to Deputy commissioner Ian Blair
Main law firms Berrymans Lace Mawer and Weightman Vizards